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By Meera Rajah
“Why Singapore?” – Ishwar Singh and Pardeep Kumar appear slightly perplexed as to how to answer this direct question, somewhat aware of the vague implications surrounding it.
Ishwar (above, right) has now been in Singapore for five years. Pardeep (above left) has been here for slightly longer. Having arrived in 2007, this marks his seventh year here. Both left Haryana and Chandigarh, respectively, while still in their (late) teens. Each had spent approximately eleven years in school, leaving shortly after senior school. Pardeep was only 18 years old when he first arrived in Singapore.
“India not many jobs,” Ishwar explains. His parents are farmers in a small village; the city is “very far” off. He is the youngest of three siblings, a small household compared to his father’s family of ten. Even while in school, he had fantasies of the city, the migrant dream of a better, brighter future, and when he decided he’d leave Haryana to chase his dream, his parents didn’t object.
“[India] also no guarantee money coming and going”, Pardeep chimes in. He is the eldest of his three siblings; his parents too are farmers. They encouraged him to leave Chandigarh, he tells me. They wanted him to go somewhere they believed “money have… everybody have”, even if it was more than 3,000 miles away.
However, neither man seem able to tell us exactly why they chose to come to Singapore instead of Dubai or Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it was too long ago.
The fact that neither of them had any friends who could give them a first-hand account of life in Singapore did not deter them. They – rather naively – placed their wholehearted faith in the job agents they had just met. Both their agents requested a ‘commission’ of $6,000 – not inclusive of air fees or the like — on promises that they could easily earn back the sum in Singapore: The agents ‘estimated’ that they would earn a figure between $1,200 to $2,000 per month.
Upon arriving in Singapore, it became obvious to Ishwar and Pardeep that they had been duped.
Ishwar’s first salary was $700 a month – approximately half what his agent had ‘guaranteed’. Pardeep’s first was a mere $245, partly because there was no work to be done in the first fifteen days subsequent to his arrival. In fact, the company had very little work at all through the course of his first contract. “Agent cannot hundred percent trust”, Pardeep reflects with the benefit of hindsight. Faced with a dire financial situation, he told the agent that the picture he had painted was rather incongruent with reality, but despite the agent’s promises to “return your money”, Pardeep was unable to recover even a cent of the $6,000 fee.
These two are not alone. False representations by agents are a widespread problem amongst the migrant worker population in Singapore.
Ishwar’s first job involved dismantling lifts, taking out screws and parts. When this job ended, he flew back to Haryana for a break. While there, a friend told him about opportunities in an electrical company in Singapore – his friend had worked at the company for four years and was content with his job. He was paid $27 a day. Now wary of agents, Ishwar chose to contact the company directly and paid $1,500 — not clear to whom though, possibly a fixer within the company or the company itself — to secure the job. He speaks of this as a bargain: After all, this was a quarter of the $6,000 he had paid his first agent and slightly less than twice the $800 that his first company had (illegally) charged him to renew his work permit.
At this new job, Ishwar earned $22 a day, picking up a new trade in the process. Despite the fact that he not had any formal training as an electrician, he progressed from the role of ‘helper’ to a full-fledged electrician. He learnt directly from the foreman, he says. Prior to his accident, his company drove him to shopping centres to solve electrical issues unaccompanied. His grasp of the English language improved too as he regularly conversed with his twelve co-workers and the four Malaysian foremen; all communicated in English.
Pardeep worked as a carpenter; he too picked up skills on the job. He mostly worked in a furniture-making factory, but assisted in renovation work on site too, sometimes doing other kinds of work such as painting. He earned $23 a day, although he was not paid for overtime. In contrast to the company for which Ishwar worked, “everyone [in Mr Pardeep’s workplace is] from India”. Even so, his English is quite fluent.
Ishwar’s last finger was injured in June 2014 when he fell while up on scaffolding working at the new National Stadium (at right). A foreman took him to hospital two to three hours after it had swelled badly, and “boss” is fully covering the cost of his medical treatment.
Pardeep’s accident (May 2014) sounds like a case of falling dominoes. While working in the factory, a four-foot wooden table fell on his hand. When he stood up and tried to extricate himself, he stumbled. More tables fell on him, this time against his back. Other workers heard the noise and rushed in. His employer took him to hospital, and is also covering the cost of his medical treatment. However, there may be some permanent injury: he says his hand is unable to fully close, he can’t make a fist.
Despite their misfortune, Ishwar and Pardeep’s perceptions of Singapore have not been marred the way some of their migrant counterparts’ have. Perhaps it is due to the fact that post-accident, their employers readily provided medical care. Other workers whom TWC2 see complain of having received verbal and physical abuse from employers and company superiors, or have been denied treatment or reimbursement of medical bills, or have endured months of unpaid salary. Ishwar and Pardeep say their wages were always promptly paid.
“What is your lasting impression of Singapore?” I ask.
“Safety number one! Road regulation very good… Singapore have rule, India not have”, Pardeep opines. “Everybody nice”, he continues, after some thought.
Ishwar concurs: “Happy working in Singapore. Singapore very good country”, although he observes “salary not enough.” His salary remained $700 even after working for here for five years.
Both hope to recover fully from their injuries. “After that, do you want to come back here to work?”
Without hesitation: Yes.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our